RGB vs. CMYK: The Digital Print Debate


In just about every job you produce, color fidelity is likely to be the number one factor in determining whether your customers deem the job acceptable.

Research suggests that the human eye is much more sensitive than the most sophisticated instruments available. To make matters more complicated, consider the fact that each individual may perceive color differently.

Let’s look at considerations in achieving the best color possible when preparing files for print.

Color Management is Challenging.

Achieving consistent, accurate and reliable color can save you time, money and materials wasted on reprints. Doing so can be a daunting task that requires managing color amongst different devices with different calibrations and across users with different perceptions.

Begin with Monitor Calibration.

Managing color begins with the most common device: the monitor. If you aren’t working with a well-calibrated monitor, how do you know that what you’re seeing on the screen is an accurate representation?

This is especially true in soft proofing processes, where designers and prepress operators use the monitor as the basis to form critical color decisions. Discrepancies occur as a monitor drifts over time. Compensations made for on-screen color can seriously jeopardize the quality of printed output.

Fortunately, calibrating and characterizing your monitor can easily correct these issues. Solutions for monitor calibration can range from free tools, such as what’s built into your operating system (e.g. Mac OSX System preferences > Display > Color > Calibrate), to specialized calibration software with varying price points.

Understanding Color Spaces: RBG vs. CMYK.

The fact that each device has its own color space largely contributes to why printed output in your hand may look so different from what you see on a monitor. There are innate differences between RGB and CMYK color spaces. For starters, CMYK, the color system used for printing, is a ‘subtractive’ color method. In this model, as colors are added the result gets darker, eventually resembling black. RGB, on the other hand, is an ‘additive’ color method. As colors are added, the result gets lighter and becomes white. A computer monitor is an example of an additive model, where the colors seen on the screen are created through the addition of light. For a comprehensive overview of how the color systems work, check out this article from RGB World.

Which color model should you use when designing for digital?

While the process of printing involves a CMYK color space, the general rule of thumb for novices is to let the RIP convert the file to CMYK prior to print. The major benefit of this can be seen when working on images, which are best suited for RGB color spaces. In general, RGB has a much larger color gamut than CMYK, providing tremendous benefits and flexibility to designers.

RGB comes in many flavors including Adobe RGB and sRGB. Adobe RGB is a larger color space than sRGB, containing more colors and more highly saturated colors. Adobe RGB was designed to contain the entire color gamut available from most CMYK printers, whereas sRGB describes the colors visible on a monitor.

In general, you want to use color spaces that are as large and practical as possible. If your printer is capable of producing output in a color space larger than sRGB, there is no reason to hobble your work by limiting output to the small sRGB gamut.

Setting up Color

When your Color Settings are consistent across all of your applications and align with your print provider’s recommendations, the resulting output will be more predictable and consistent.

It can be helpful to set a default or custom Color Settings for all of your Adobe applications and other graphics software. It is recommended to use Photoshop to create a custom color setting since it provides the most complete set of parameters. You can then use Adobe Bridge to synchronize all of your Adobe applications with the chosen settings.

To help protect the integrity of your color spaces, Adobe will always prompt you when opening an image that is not tagged with an ICC profile and also when pasting an image with a profile that does not match the current application’s working space.

Knowing how to manage color during the design process can be complicated, however, following these simple tips will help ensure that your output is consistent with your expectations and optimized for your digital printer.

  • Calibration and profiling of your monitor is the first step towards a color-managed workflow.
  • Use sRGB for web graphics. Using Adobe RGB for web images leads to washed-out looking colors.
  • When designing for print, native RGB provides the broadest possible color gamut to be brought into the CMYK world. Choose the best rendering intent to help you make the best color conversion.
  • If in doubt or unsure, leave RGB alone. If you convert RGB yourself, you lose color space and run the risk of introducing artifacts into the file.
  • For beginners, it’s best to save the RGB conversion for the last step in the RIP process. It allows you to take full advantage of the digital press’s color space.
  • Familiarize yourself with critical considerations when designing for digital print, including gradients, tints, transparencies, bleed and post-production finishing.
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Comments (13)

  1. Posted by Bob Faulkner (Faulkner Advertising) on 2.23.15 at 9:59 pm

    Wow. Where to begin?

    I, too, made color profiles back in the ’90s and early 2,000s. I gave most of that up for a simpler system.

    You mention one can create custom color profiles using Apple’s visual profiling techniques in System Preferences. I did that once. The result was not as good as the default profile.

    I have found that Apple’s recent iMacs are very color accurate, without the need for self-made color profiles.

    I used to use Adobe RGB, but switched to sRGB, because that is what the rest of the world runs on. Actually, I once used Adobe RGB as my color space and exported images as JPEG files and posted them on the web. All of the “pop” went out of the images. I was embarrassed to show my photos and retouching to my client. Then one day, I converted the images to sRGB and posted them. Wow! They looked great! Even on my client’s machine! So, based on personal experience, it seems as if files, destined for the web, look best in sRGB. Since most images are destined for the web, I shoot and keep everything as sRGB now.

    I was thrilled when InDesign came out with the ability to save PDFs in PDF/X-4:2008 format, thinking that printers could run the file through their RIPs using their own profiles. It turned out, printers did not want this.

    Which bring me to my last point. I have found that all printers and publications I use prefer PDFs and they all want a CMYK PDF saved in that ancient PDF/X-1a:2001 format.

    I have worked on books printed in Japan and Korea. In Korea, they would take our native files, open them on their monitor, and “correct” the color to match the prints we sent. This was about 12 years ago. Japan asked us to use profiles designed just for their presses and send PDF files. About 8 or 10 years ago, they changed and simple want us to send PDF/X-1a files now. Virtually everyone now wants PDF/X-1a files. Newspapers, too. I once sent a PDF of a newspaper with a newsprint profile attached. Not very good. Sent the same with the “standard” PDF/X-1a profile and it printed great!

    It seems everyone I deal with expects the “standard” PDF/X-1a profile. I don’t know of any designer that messes or even knows much about the profile choices, really. So, I think most printers have adapted and expect the “standard” PDF.

    I keep all my files in RGB format because most everything will be seen on the web, and only sometimes in print.

    So, this may not be right, but this is my experience, that’s all.

  2. Posted by Joe Schember (Mohawk MakeReady) on 2.24.15 at 4:27 pm

    Bob – thanks for sharing your experiences and particularly how they have shifted over time. You made many good points that make a lot of sense. When developing this article, we were expecting good feedback from folks on their own color management practices. Color management is a widely debated topic and there are many good approaches to effectively doing it (all good for their own reasons). Our approach with this article was to focus on the novice printer or designer in relation to print. Specifically, we wanted to dial in on digital print where the colorants often provide a larger color space than a traditional cmyk (ie. SWOP) gamut. There’s even some digital presses that have high chroma colorants or offer extended gamut through additional toner/ink stations beyond CMYK.

    The key is to start a dialogue and work correctly with your printer to determine how best to manage color throughout the process from input to output for your application.

    Thanks again for your feedback!

    Joe for Mohawk MakeReady

  3. Posted by Holley on 2.24.15 at 5:32 pm

    This article came right on time. I’m familiar with some aspects of RGB vs CMYK when it comes to printing, but I clearly knew very little when it came posting my images on the web–I just created a digital portfolio and all the colors looked dull. So, when I spent yesterday searching the net for answers and all I kept coming across was a bunch of over-the-top tech speak, I gave up. I don’t want to know how to “code” my work, I just want it to look consistent…and vibrant regardless of how it’s being viewed. Thanks again!

  4. Posted by Joe Schember (Mohawk MakeReady) on 2.24.15 at 5:53 pm

    Holley – that’s great! We’re glad we could help demystify things a bit. Thanks for the follow up!

  5. Posted by Steve (Hill Design) on 3.3.15 at 2:01 pm

    I am a little confused on what file format we are to submit to printers for printing. Should we submit our native files in CMYK or RGB for 4 color printing. Would the CMYK format be more cost affective than RGB.

  6. Posted by Joe Schember on 3.3.15 at 2:29 pm

    Hi Steve – thanks for the comment. There actually isn’t one right answer and we’d encourage you to have a dialogue with your print provider regarding what their preference would be. Some printers prefer to receive RGB native so that they can manage the color transition. Others prefer to have final files converted to CMYK. It will also depend on what print process is being used… digital toner, digital inkjet, offset, flexo etc.

    Let us know if you have further questions.


  7. Posted by Alex Lane on 10.19.15 at 3:42 pm

    Thanks for the information. I do a lot of design for the church that I go to, but have never officially been taught about it. Before now I never really understood what the difference is. So, you recommend creating in RGB if the printing service can convert it to CMYK, is that right?

  8. Posted by Joe Schember on 10.19.15 at 6:19 pm

    Hi Alex,

    We recommend having a conversation with your specific printing service regarding what their preference would be. Some may want to do the conversion themselves, while others might want you to give the CMYK file only.

    On a similar topic, you may also find our “Printing Basics” resource useful: https://www.mohawkconnects.com/sites/default/files/content/pdf-prepress/PrintingBasics_Final_082715.pdf

    Thanks for the question and let us know if you have any others.

    Joe (Mohawk Makeready)

  9. Posted by Martin L on 11.10.15 at 11:37 am


    thank you for this article and posts, especially about the difference between CMYK and RGB and their ranges.
    I might look stupid, but I would rather ask 3-times to be sure…

    We have a new, expensive digital Canon (PS3) printer and I am learning to use it’s capabilities, working with Adobe CS6 (full package). We are printing books (including paper back covers), textbooks, leaflets, brochures, etc. (we are school publishing and print always a mixture of vectors and images, but vectors prevail). I am mostly using InDesign and Illustrator (for logos and some vectors).
    My colleague (she is in practice for more than 10 years now) tells me, that IN GENERAL, printing on a digital printer should be carried out using RGB mode.

    My experience, though, is that when I use the PS driver (which should be the main benefit of the printer “understanding modern and expensive Adobe language”) trying to print in RGB, the colours are totally OUT of the picture (so to say), they are dark and dull.
    When (with the same file prepared in RGB) use a standard UFR II driver, using one of the RGB ICC profiles, it prints out almost accurate of what I see on the screen.
    However, when I prepare a document in CMYK and use the PS driver (using one of the CMYK ICC profiles), the document comes out of the printer also almost perfect (but there are exceptions, of course).

    Now, we have some colleagues from different departments who bring their files to print and they are confused how should they prepare them for us (RGB, or CMYK), because I told them to work in CMYK and my colleague tells them to work in RGB.

    So I am a bit confused and would appreciate an advice, what is the better choice using a digital printer – RGB, or CMYK?

  10. Posted by Joe Schember on 11.10.15 at 2:29 pm

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for your comments & question. I wish there was one simple answer for you. Which is the better choice for a digital printer is dependent on so many factors. The best advice I can give you is to work with your colleague and standardize your workflow ie. always use PS driver or always use UFR II driver in order to determine which method gives you the most predictable color. It’s also important to note that even with RGB & CMYK there are different “flavors” like sRGB, Adobe RGB 1998, US Web Coated SWOP CMYK, Coated Gracol 2006 CMYK etc. All of these color spaces are different sizes and include different colors around their “edges”. It’s most important to standardize and be consistent in what you use internally and what you recommend for incoming files.

    Let us know if you have any additional questions,

    Joe from Mohawk

  11. Posted by Bob Faulkner (Faulkner Advertising) on 11.11.15 at 12:59 am

    Hello Martin,

    I think the ICC profiles are key, here.

    Here is how I handle my files:

    Colors specified in InDesign are CMYK. I leave all my images RGB. Because the images will most likely fins their way to the web, I use sRGB as the profile. I know many people say Adobe RGB is better, but that would only be for print. In my experience, Adobe RGB images lose punch when viewed on the web.

    At the end, files that are going to a commercial are exported from InDesign as a CMYK PDF. All the printers I use are expecting U.S. SWOP as the profile, so that is what I use. You are printing directly to a canon printer. You might want to experiment with whatever gives the best results be that the printer handling the color conversion or your program. In the end, it is what gives the best results that is important.

    I think your co-worker is suggesting raster images be saved as RGB because that is the most versatile, looking great on the web and able to be converted to CMYK for printing. I just do the conversion at the time of printing, from the program doing the printing.

    Does this help?

  12. Posted by Joe Schember on 11.11.15 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks again for sharing your experiences and thoughts, Bob.

  13. Posted by Martin L on 11.11.15 at 2:41 pm

    Hello Joe, Bob,

    thank you for your prompt replies.
    We are in Europe, so we are using europe ICC profiles.
    I use mostly FOGRA39 for coated CMYK and PSO/or FOGRA29 for uncoated CMYK. RGB ICC I use Adobe RGB (1998).
    As I understand it, there is no “GENERAL” practice to say whether using RGB is better than CMYK (or vice versa) on a digital printer.
    From personal experience, using the PS driver in CMYK, correct paper and ICC profile gave me better results (matching the colours I saw on the screen), but, there were exceptions as I mentioned 🙂
    Thank you again for your input and the webpage, it is helpful.

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